Silver Jews

Wilson McBee
Photos: Mehan Jayasuriya

Through the common combination of love, spirituality, and patience, David Berman has stumbled upon what might be mistaken as a happy ending but instead should be properly described as a new beginning.

Silver Jews

Silver Jews

City: Washington, DC
Venue: Black Cat
Date: 2008-09-10

Two years ago, reclusive poet-cum-songwriter David Berman took his country-rock outfit Silver Jews on tour for the first time in its 18-plus years of existence. The band -- often incorrectly called a Pavement side project (Stephen Malkmus’ sporadic membership in Silver Jews predates Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted) -- had grown a devoted following across five albums of vivid lyricism and drunken-Nashville accompaniment. Berman, a recovering drug addict with one suicide attempt under his belt, appeared more than a little uncomfortable during that tour, singing from a lyric sheet and seeming almost surprised that lines like “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” from American Water’s “Random Rules”, had become quasi-psalmist slogans for a generation of literate, disillusioned rock nerds. What a difference two years makes. Since his shaky inaugural jaunt, Berman, a recent convert to the faith referenced in his band’s title, has journeyed to Israel, released his most upbeat album to date, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, and fully embraced his role as the underground’s Dylan. This Silver Jews show at Washington, DC’s Black Cat was a homecoming of sorts, given that Berman was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, and attended college in Charlottesville. He was introduced by his own grandmother and called out friends in the audience, which, since Silver Jews’ bassist (Cassie) is also Berman’s wife, gave the performance even more of a family feel than usual. Any hints of stage fright have dissipated completely from Berman’s presence. Guitar-less, dressed in a blazer, and wearing thick eyeglasses, Berman strolled around the stage looking like a character out of Brad Neely’s Professor Brothers cartoon. Where last time around Berman seemed to be reading his songs, this time they are being sung outright. “Trains Across the Sea”, a tune from Silver Jews’ debut album with largely one-note verses, found a stirring melody with the help of Berman’s fresh confidence. The set was also livened by duets with the Mrs., such as the marriage ballad “Tennessee” and the sorrowful machine’s lament “Suffering Jukebox”. It is probably impossible to overstate the importance of Cassie Berman in the Silver Jews’ resurgence. On stage tonight it was all too evident that she is the poet’s rock, as Berman was frequently drawn to stand at her side and hardly attempted to hide his uxorious devotion. In between songs Berman quipped that Silver Jews were “Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds after taxes,” which is a good joke but altogether too modest. Silver Jews have turned out to be a considerably awe-inspiring live band. Hardcore Jews fans may continue to pray that Malkmus and his fiery axe attack would sit in for a show or two, but the no-names Berman has with him these days are no slouches, either. The versions of “Dallas” and “Horseleg Swastikas” played here were other-worldly and transcendent, with Berman preaching his colorful visions against backgrounds of chugging, rhythmic washes of country-noise. The common complaint one gets these days when mentioning Silver Jews is that Berman’s two most recent albums don’t carry the lyrical weight of classics like American Water and The National Bridge. Sure enough, the uplifting if nevertheless cushiony “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat” could not call forth the same goosebumps as the narcotic and eschatological “Pretty Eyes” on this night, but it’s unfair at this point to imagine one without the other. Five years ago no one would have predicted that Silver Jews would have turned into a truly outstanding live band, and so the fact that Berman has ceased chasing surrealistic daydream-transcriptions to instead write off-kilter country-rock ditties that sound great live should bother fewer people. Through the common combination of love, spirituality, and patience, David Berman has stumbled upon what might be mistaken as a happy ending but instead should be properly described as a new beginning.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.